Times Leader Arts & Entertainment

For the record, county making a dubious move

September 20, 1998

Times Leader Staff Writer

Since early this year, Luzerne County workers have been busy hauling boxes of old records from scattered sites to a new centralized storage area.

That site is the Thomas C. Thomas building at the corner of East Union Street and North Pennsylvania Avenue. Up to this point, large quantities had been stored in the sub-basement of the courthouse or in the Klein building on North River Street.

"Basically it will be a central records storage for Luzerne County government," said Kevin O'Brien, who is in charge of the move. "It will be used for all departments that need to store records." The county, he said, has 53 departments.

One advantage is obvious to anyone who has lived in Wyoming Valley through its bad weather: the courthouse sub-basement is prone to flooding, and records stored there are chronically endangered. In the Thomas building those records will at least be above ground.

But one thing will not change -- at least not in the near future. The genealogist who wants to see an ancestor's will, marriage record, citizenship papers or other documents will still have to go to the appropriate office in the courthouse on North River Street, make the request, and wait a day or so for the material to be retrieved and delivered back to that office.

Tammy Lamb, president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society, is skeptical of the project.

"I don't see where this is going to be a better move," she said. "You're taking public records and you're not allowing them to be accessed."

What Lamb and other local genealogists say they would like to see at the Thomas building is a centralized county records center that is staffed, equipped with tables and microfilm readers and open to the public.

Funding for improvements in county records management is already available through state legislation. A 1998 amendment to the 1982 state law regarding county records creates in each county in Pennsylvania a "County Records Improvement Fund" and requires that a new $2 fee is to be imposed on every document filed at the Recorder of Deeds office.

One dollar of that $2 is to be retained by the recorder of deeds for records management improvement in that office. The remaining $1 is to be placed in the Records Improvement Fund and used to support a comprehensive county records management plan. A committee of county officials is to develop that plan.

Lamb said her group has always been ready to work with the county to make a public-accessible records center a reality. With the new fund in place, she believes, now is the time for county officials to get busy on a new facility the public can use.

But, she says, "We offered to microfilm everything for free and they turned us down."

State officials are also taking a good look at the way counties across Pennsylvania deal with their records. On Tuesday the Pennsylvania Historical Records Advisory Board will hold a local public meeting to gather input from public officials, historians, librarians, genealogists and all other interested people as the board prepares a 10-year plan for maintaining statewide public records.

"There's been a lot of concern about county records and their availability to the public," said Susan Hartman, of the Division of Archival and Records Management Services, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. "I would hope that somebody from the county would go to the meeting."

Michael Bertheaud, executive director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, will host the meeting, said Hartman. The Genealogical Society, which meets the same night, plans to send one of its officers.

It is set for 7 to 9 p.m. in Room 130 of the Educational Conference Center at Luzerne County Community College, Nanticoke. Conducting the meeting will be Richard J. Cox and Elizabeth Yakel, professors at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences.

Some counties have already managed to centralize their records and provide access for the public, said Hartman, and she would like to see more do so.

As for Luzerne County, a project like that could be somewhere down the road, according to Deputy Chief Clerk Liz Linskey. She said the county has no time frame, but a public records center is "a distinct possibility."

In the meantime, Lamb, of the Genealogical Society has her own fears.

"Our biggest concern right now is transporting these records back and forth on a daily basis. You're talking marriage books that are already falling apart in the sub-basement."

Next: How some other Pennsylvania counties are preserving their records and making them accessible to the public.

Searching: Marilyn Balliet, of Floral City, Fla., is seeking information on the family of paternal great-grandfather William John BALLIET, who was born in 1866 in Plymouth but lived most of his life in Scranton. He and wife Mary Jane Graham (born 1871) had six known children: John Francis (died 1930), Louis (died 1933), William (died 1989), Lillian (died 1911), Ruth (died 1923) and Grace (died 1980). William and Mary Jane are buried in the Dunmore Cemetery. Marilyn Balliet's father, Frederick, is John's son.

She believes a brother or cousin of William John might have started the Balliet delicatessen business.

Contact Marilyn Balliet at 11897 S. Old Jones Road, Floral City, Fla. 34436.

News Notes: The Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will open its 1998-99 schedule with a meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Plains Township, near Wyoming Valley Mall.

It will be a workshop session, meaning that members and other visitors will be able to bring in questions or problems and get help. It is not necessary to be a member to attend.

  • Help could be on the way for the Civil War battlefields on which many of our ancestors served. Recently the U.S. Senate approved spending $10 million to help preserve battlefields threatened by residential and commercial development. Under the program, state and local governments would be eligible for matching funds. The bill still needs approval by the House of Representatives.

  • Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at WWW.LEADER.NET. Then click on "Arts and Entertainment."

  • Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

    © 1998 The Times Leader

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